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The ‘guardian angel’ of refugees

Fr Mussie Zerai (Peter Klaunzer/Keystone via AP)

Immigrants dying at sea, in boats that were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realised that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated.”

These words were spoken by Pope Francis on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in July 2013. The fate of fleeing refugees has been a constant theme of his pontificate. No surprise, then, that he was expected to wash the feet of migrants in Rome this Holy Thursday, a gesture which will help to keep their destinies in focus on the world stage. Last autumn, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But he wasn’t on his own: also in the running, but attracting considerably less attention, was a 40-year-old Eritrean priest.

The man in question has had a remarkable life. He lost his mother at the age of five. He and his seven siblings were raised by a devout grandmother, Kudusa, who taught him how to pray in the bunkers during bombing raids and who put him in touch with the local bishop when, as a 14-year-old, he felt the pull of a priestly vocation. He is to modern-day refugees what Oskar Schindler became to more than a thousand Jews escaping from the Nazis. This is Fr Mussie Zerai, whose mobile phone number has proved a lifeline for thousands of individuals fleeing war, torture and oppression.

“Father Moses”, or “the guardian angel of the refugees” as he is often called, knows their situation all too well. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive countries in the world. Since gaining independence in 1993, it has been a one-party state. It ranks even below North Korea on the Press Freedom Index and was pilloried in 2015 in a 500-page UN report which singled out the regime’s use of extrajudicial executions as an instrument of terror against its critics.

Fr Zerai’s father fled the country to Rome in the 1990s and his son, aged 16, courageously followed in his footsteps. A British priest helped the young man secure a residence permit in the Italian capital. He joined up to study and work with the Scalabrinian Missionaries, a foundation dedicated to helping migrants and refugees. It was when he was with them in Rome several years later that his mobile phone rang. At three in the morning.

“They were speaking my language [Tigrinya],” he says. “They were using my name, but I didn’t know who it was.”

The call was from a satellite phone from a boat in distress off the Libyan coast. He went and woke the rector. “What do I do?” he asked. “Ring the coastguard,” came the no-nonsense, pragmatic answer. So he did.

Since that night in 2003, Fr Zerai has fielded thousands of such calls. But why him? How did a trainee priest’s mobile contact come to be one of the most widely circulated numbers in North Africa?

The answer to this conundrum did not become clear until 2011, a year after his ordination, when he was contacted by a New York journalist who was in Libya writing a piece about the aftermath of the post-Gaddafi revolution. “Your phone number is on the walls of one of the detention centres,” said the writer.

Fr Zerai was intrigued. He thought briefly, and then put the pieces together. In 2003, he had been phoned by an Italian journalist researching a feature about the conditions facing Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees in the Misrata detention centre in Libya. The writer needed someone to translate their stories, so he turned to Fr Zerai for help. Subsequently, the two spoke regularly on the phone as the Eritrean refugee was himself anxious to know more about the fate of his fellow countrymen. This journalist, it seems, had passed on Fr Zerai’s number to the refugees. Someone got out a marker pen. Seconds later it was there on the wall, accompanied by the words “Call here if you’re in trouble.”

His contact details spread like wildfire. In the ensuing years, they have even been recited live on radio by survivors who have recounted their tales of rescue on the high seas. That explains why he gets 40 to 50 calls a day. He might just as well be in the Yellow Pages.

And it’s a call log that shows no sign of diminishing. He has now had to appoint assistants to take calls on a second hotline number when he is busy in meetings or celebrating Mass. The thought of missing an urgent plea for help appears to weigh heavily on him.

Since his ordination in 2010, Fr Zerai has had few undisturbed nights. The routine is simple. If he gets a call from a vessel in trouble, he will immediately relay the co-ordinates to the Maltese and Italian coastguards and members of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.

He has set up Watch the Med, which describes itself as an “online mapping platform to monitor the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU”. If he is unconvinced that suitably swift and effective action has taken place, he frequently takes to the television and radio airwaves to denounce the authorities. He will engage in campaigns of mass emailing to draw attention to the failure to act.

Not surprisingly, this all takes its toll on his psychological resources. Some of the phone calls do not end well. The lasting effect can be haunting. In March 2011 he received a call from a man named Ghirma.

A boat with 72 passengers on board was in trouble off the Mediterranean coast between Lampedusa and Libya. Fr Zerai sprang into action and was assured by the coastguard that a number of Nato vessels in the vicinity had been informed. But as the hours passed by, the phone contact died.

The case has become known as the “left-to-die boat”, as 15 days later the priest discovered that the Zodiac, as the fragile vessel was called, had washed up off the Libyan coast. Only nine passengers were still alive. Some accounts report that the passengers had tried to survive by mixing seawater with urine and adding toothpaste.

When Fr Zerai was interviewed on BBC radio to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he recounted the tale and his voice cracked audibly. “I am still in touch with the nine survivors, but this is a story I cannot and will not forget,” he said.

Nato has responded, saying that “there is no record of any aircraft or ship under Nato command having seen or made contact with the small boat in question”.

It is hardly surprising that in Tripoli, nuns have taped an open letter from Fr Zerai onto the walls outside the Catholic Vicariate which reads: “Do not be deceived by the traffickers. They are only interested in your money and do not care for your life.”

How does he cope with tales such as what happened to Ghirma on the Zodiac in 2011? “Without faith, I cannot survive,” he told the Huffington Post. “Because every day you hear a lot of problems, stories, tragedies. For me my faith and prayer time are important to eradicate all this pain.”

This interior strength is a quality that has not passed unnoticed among some of the most high ranking of officials charged with dealing with the increasingly vexed issue of refugees and migration. Luis CdeBaca was a US State Department official charged with policing and monitoring the shady world of criminal human trafficking. In an an interview with the New Yorker, he explained why he admired Fr Zerai: “He really does have, for lack of a better word, a grace to him,”
he said. “You can’t help but be affected by someone who has true calm, true spirituality.”

The facts and figures about the migrant crisis speak for themselves. More than 20,000 people have lost their lives on their way to Europe since 1995. Faced with the instability in Syria and Iraq now affecting Turkey and Greece and causing headaches for politicians in the EU, what is the answer?

Fr Zerai believes that Europe should open a humanitarian corridor, but thinks the continent cannot solve the problem through generosity alone. “The solution is not to transfer all Syrians and Africans to Europe,” he says. “The solution lies in their homelands. We need to create safe spaces and fund resettlement programmes, and this will take away power from the traffickers.”

To which one might reply that these are fine ideas in theory, but they require funds and manpower. Unlike politicians in Western democracies who have to seek approval from the voters (note Angela Merkel’s recent electoral reverses over the refugee issue in Germany), Fr Zerai can berate European leaders for their lack of courage and imagination without the inconvenience of having to run for public office himself.

But if one role of the Gospel is to “comfort the oppressed and oppress the comfortable”, then no one can gainsay Fr Zerai’s prophetic stance on arguably the most pressing ethical issue of our times. He is hardly an armchair critic, and in a world where many shrug their shoulders when faced with the enormity of the issue, here is one man whose towering and untiring witness to justice and peace merits our attention.

The greatest challenge laid down by the Gospel is not how we treat friends, family and those of the clan; it is how we deal with the stranger. In Exodus 23:9 Yahweh says to the newly liberated chosen people: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”

That seems to be a defining hallmark of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, reaching its climax in the life and teachings of Jesus: that the test of one’s moral compass – and, by implication, one’s relationship with God – revolves around our dealings with those who are decidedly not like ourselves. If this is the case, then the work of Fr Zerai is a lodestar which perhaps instils in us a feeling of shame at our own inaction. If the Spirit is indeed working in the example of this remarkable refugee from Eritrea, his life will stir troubled consciences and yet bear fruit in practice.

It took the photo of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey last summer, to ignite the refugee debate. People respond not to abstract policy options but to stories. We are captivated by tales of risk and courage by outstanding individuals. And that is why the life of Fr Mussie Zerai remains a beacon of hope.

Mark Dowd is a writer on religious affairs

This article first appeared in the March 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here